As I write this, I am almost through with the first draft of my MA thesis. It’s currently 66 pages long (about 23K, for those of you who think in word counts), and once I add the introduction, conclusion, and a few transitional paragraphs, I estimate it will clock in around 70-75 pages.
On the surface, academic and creative writing are a world apart. In academia, we build on the work of previous scholars. We draw heavily on the research that’s come before us, and try to fit ourselves within an established framework while still demonstrating how our projects stand out.
In creative writing, get to wield our imaginations to the best of our abilities. While we have to fit ourselves into the boundaries of a genre, our success depends on the uniqueness of our voices, our ability to create worlds and characters who are distinctive, fresh, and compelling.
As I struggle to reconcile my two selves together, I’ve found that these worlds might not be as incompatible as I’ve always believed. I begin creative and academic projects in similar ways: immersing myself in research, reading as much as I can, and mapping the field.
Although my thesis will probably never make for exciting bedtime reading (unless you’re thrilled by sociological discussions of etiquette and social inequality), reflecting on the writing process has led me to realize that some of the lessons I’ve learned from creative writing are applicable.
1. It all begins with a question.
In creative writing, we constantly ask questions about our work, our characters, and our worlds constantly. Trying to answer those questions helps us to invent new tales or to jumpstart flagging ones, and so we find ourselves toying with ridiculous scenarios, just to see what will happen.
What if a horde of zombie chimpanzees crash-land a spaceship in the middle of a cornfield just as the protagonist and her on-again, off-again boyfriend are arguing?
For academic research, questions are just as powerful and pivotal. Here, it’s usually “why” and “how come?” that orient us. (Yes, academics were probably the most irritating toddlers on the face of the planet.)
My thesis is no different. It was born out of countless questions, including one that came to me as I was working on my senior undergraduate thesis:
Why has etiquette played such a large role in shaping wedding practices in the United States? If etiquette is as important as historians of the wedding suggest, why hasn’t anyone else studied it in-depth?
Some of my favorite fiction projects have started the same way, as ideas that have tumbled around in my head, not quite substantial enough to explore in-depth, but too shiny and promising to ignore completely.
Learning to question our work throughout the writing process, to view it with all the curiosity and excitement that motivates us at the start of a project, is one key to unlocking our creativity.
2. Long projects are long.
By this point in my academic career, I have mastered the art of
bullshitting crafting a 10-15 page paper. I have a sense of how I need to organize my ideas, the number of extended excerpts I can mobilize, and the number of subsections I’ll need to plan. With longer forms of writing, however, all those rules go straight out the window.
Nothing is scarier than being faced with a mountain of words — or, even worse, with the blank Word document, the one that will eventually become a mountain of words, but is nothing more than a empty sheet of possibility. We’ve all felt that stab of panic as we stare at the blanking cursor, waiting for the words to flow, and so each word, each sentence, each paragraph feels like a tiny victory.
As I grapple with understanding the structure of the novel, I am also struggling to grasp the mechanics of long-form academic writing. Scholarly writing is much more straight-forward, at least on the surface. There are no plot points to figure out, no need to sort out character motivations and overarching themes. Academics are expected to tell and not show, to reveal the our results in the very first paragraph (this makes me sad, because sometimes I’d like there to be a big reveal — I toiled in the archives for days and weeks, and hunted for clues! At last, the meaning of etiquette books was revealed to me…).
My adventures with NaNoWriMo have taught me that while I benefit from outlines, I am a nonlinear, scene-by-scene sort of writer. I’ve penned the thesis in the same way: in odd bits and pieces scattered around Scrivener, culled from past seminar papers and conference talks. Those chunks of text are somehow cobbled together by a form of alchemy that I can only guess at, fitted together to form a seemingly coherent product.
My take-away from all of this? Write, no matter how short or silly or stupid the idea is. Scrawl as many memos and notes as possible, keep track of how ideas jump around and leap about and evolve. Eventually, some sort of structure will emerge to unite some of those pieces together.
3. Sometimes things change.
Perhaps a better way of stating this is, “Plans almost always go awry.” I think we’ve all been there: we have an outline, a plan, a sense of where we want our story or our characters to go, and we are marching boldly in that direction when something manages to derail us and shake everything up.
There are two options when this happens: (1) roll with the punches and take the path of adventure, following that rogue character down the rabbit hole to see where she might lead you or (2) digging your heels in the ground and stubbornly refusing the deviate from the original plan.
For all its linearity, academic research is a circuitous path, one strewn with distractions and pitfalls and game-changers. Instead of exciting new characters or strange plot twists, we have things like that-article-you-didn’t-realize-existed, or the stray footnote that reveals something amazing/horrible, or (in my case) the project that’s wearing a disguise.
For about a year and a half, I was under the impression that I was studying etiquette books to learn more about the wedding. Imagine my shock when I realized that I was really doing the opposite: I was looking at a project about etiquette books, and using the wedding as a case study, a lens through which I could gain a deeper understanding about etiquette.
I am learning to embrace change, even though it’s terrifying and usually inconvenient. It’s the evolution of a project that is sometimes the most valuable, because it takes us to places that we never imagined.
4. Ideas need room to breathe.
I learned early on in my creative writing career that ideas need room to breathe. While writing on a regular basis is a useful and important habit to adopt, sometimes putting down the pen or walking away from the computer can be just as valuable. I’ve found that taking walks, brushing my teeth, straightening my hair, and doing the dishes are among the best ways to unsnarl problematic plots. What I didn’t anticipate was that academic work demands similar periods for percolation.
Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.
The image of the solitary scientist reclined on the couch, smoking a cigar and searching for the perfect idea makes me giggle, but I think Weber has the idea right: ideas come when we least expect them.
It was through binging on episodes of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise (my procrastination method of choice) that helped me to see why my thesis project has contemporary relevance, even if it is a historical project. The idea that “money can’t buy you class” is one deeply embedded in 1920s etiquette books. Even though many of the etiquette practices from the period are antiquated today, that basic concept not only remains relevant, but organizes the way that our society operates.
In a message to my fellow ROW80 participants, Tiffany A. White has said something similar, encouraging creative writers to “plow through the writing weeds” by disengaging from our WIPs. It’s okay to disconnect — sometimes procrastination is a useful tool.
5. Passion: the magic ingredient.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for “passionate devotion” since reading Natalie Hartford’s wonderful post about “doing what we love.” Writing is hard, stressful work, whether it’s creative or academic. Sometimes it feels torturous and painful, and I wonder exactly why I’m putting myself through all of this when I could’ve picked some other profession that might have been less taxing.
Writing requires heart and soul. At the end of the day, I love what I do. I became a sociologist out of a desire to not only engage in a “ruthless critique of everything existing” (to quote Karl Marx), but to grapple with social inequality in a way that could provoke critical thinking. I chose to add fiction-writing on top of the mix because I know that without tapping into my creative potential, I’m incomplete.
What lessons have you drawn from your writing experiences?